RUNNING THE RULE: Whatever happened to indirect free-kicks in the box for obstruction?

We ask a UEFA ref to clear up Kevin Kilbane’s Champions League confusion.

Late in the first-leg of Atletico-Real Champions League quarter-final first leg, Fernando Torres burst into the Real penalty area, collided with Sergio Ramos and fell to the ground.

Atletico appealed for a penalty but TV3 co-commentator Kevin Kilbane recommended an indirect free-kick in the area for obstruction.

We knew, deep in our hearts, that this sounded wrong and was wrong, though judging by the Twitter debate, nobody was quite sure why. All most people knew was; they hadn’t seen an indirect free-kick for obstruction in decades.

Turns out Kilbane was wrong. Though the reasons mightn’t be clear from a nose through the rulebooks.

In a longwindedness drive, the offence ‘obstruction’ was removed from Fifa’s Laws of the Game in 1997 and was replaced with “impeding the progress of an opponent.”

‘Impeding the progress of an opponent means moving into the path of the opponent to obstruct, block, slow down or force a change of direction by an opponent when the ball is not within playing distance of either player.’

The penalty for impeding remains an indirect free-kick. So why do we never see one given?

We can’t provide footage of the Torres incident, but isn’t this, for example, textbook old-school obstruction? 

But an incident like this is never, these days, punished by an indirect free-kick.

UEFA and Fifa qualified referee Padraigh Sutton tells us why. It’s all about contact.

“I can't comment on any particular decision, but if there is contact between two players, and the referee considers it a foul, the referee may only award a direct free-kick or a penalty."

"There is no option to give an indirect free-kick."

So when there’s contact between the players, ‘impeding’ is taken out of the equation. In practise, almost all incidents of this type involve some kind of contact. So wouldn’t it be easier for refs if the old ‘obstruction’ option was still there? Padraigh doesn’t agree.

"If you could award an indirect free-kick, it would become very difficult for a referee to distinguish between a penalty offence and an indirect free-kick offence. There is always going to be a certain amount of jostling between players as they contest possession. That is why the change was brought in, to make things clearer for referees."

"Players are very aware of the rules. That's why you don't see many of those types of offences in the penalty area any more. Because players know a penalty will be awarded.

"If you had a situation where players thought they might get away with an indirect free kick, I think you would soon see a lot more impeding and barging in the penalty area."

This isn’t actually documented in the Laws of the Game though, which is probably why there’s such confusion, even among former international players. Sutton says:

"The 'contact' ruling is not actually written in the rulebook. That is the current interpretation of the rule. Fifa and Uefa regularly issue guidance to referees on how rules should be interpreted. Many of these small tweaks mightn't even become noticeable to the spectators."

There are, of course, still indirect free-kicks in the box for backpasses and other technical offences. But the same ‘contact’ guideline applies to ‘dangerous play’.

"The same logic applies for dangerous play in the penalty area. If a defender bicycle kicks the ball away, for example, but his feet are dangerously close to an attacker's head, the referee may award an indirect free kick.”

"But if the defender makes contact with the attacker - kicks him in the head or whatever - then the referee only has the option to award a penalty."

Sorry Killer, wrong on this one, but you certainly weren’t alone.

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